The ICC’s Nightmare on Elm Street

The Trade-Off Loophole in the proposed 2018 IECC may earn first-ever “negative” determination from DOE.

The Trade-Off Loophole in the proposed 2018 IECC may earn first-ever “negative” determination from DOE.


In the 2009 IECC, the ICC’s Governmental Member Voting Representatives (GMVRs) closed the equipment trade-off (ETO) loophole once and for all. This was good news: An analysis by ICF International, one of the world’s leading energy analytics firms found that stopping equipmenttrade-offs added at least 6-9% to the 2009 IECC’s already historic 12% boost in new home efficiency. Furthermore, the analysis found that an individual home built using all available equipment trade-offs could have
consumed as much as 22% more energy than a home that didn’t use them.

Did I say “once and for all?”

Actually, efficiency opponents have forced the GMVRs to vote three more times on the ETO loophole – twice during consideration of the 2012 IECC and again during hearings on the 2015 IECC.

Like Freddy Kruger, the ETO is the loophole that just won’t die.

This year, a builder-stacked and builder-dominated Residential Energy Committee once again recommended reinstating the ETO (RE-134), then added its support for two other trade-off loopholes for windows and lighting.

Not only are trade-offs a zero-sum game at best, but with very few proposals that boost efficiency, these three tradeoffs could end up sinking the 2018 IECC itself.

RE-134 will add at least 6-9% to new home energy use. The ETO allows a builder to weaken a new home’s envelope features—most of which will perform for the 80- to 100-year life of the home—in exchange for installing more efficient equipment that may last 20-25 years. In other words, when the equipment is replaced after a few years, the trade-off home with the weaker envelope will continue to waste energy
for decades. Adding insult to injury, the efficient equipment has to work harder (less efficiently) in the leakier envelope.

Federal law preempts energy codes from addressing the efficiency of HVAC systems and hot water heaters. And here’s the rub: Uncle Sam doesn’t update equipment efficiency standards very frequently, and when he does, the updates often end up in multiyear court battles, further delaying efficiency progress for years on end. In fact, builders would be hard-pressed to even find furnaces as inefficient as the
current federal standard.

Data from both DOE and ICF show that in half of today’s new homes, builders are already installing the same high-efficiency equipment without weakening building envelopes.

What kind of trade-off lets builders increase homeowner energy bills to compensate for something they’re already doing?

Builders argue that the ETO is “energy neutral,” but the ETO can only be neutral if you ignore the facts that:

  • Since most state energy codes haven’t allowed equipment trade-offs for a number of years now, hundreds of thousands of homes have been successfully constructed across America with great envelopes.
  • Since the market penetration of efficient equipment continues to grow, there is no evidence the ETO has had any adverse effect on the sales of high-efficiency furnaces, air conditioners, or water heaters.

Both of the other two trade-off proposals–RE-146 and RE- 130–will also weaken the efficiency of the 2018 IECC and boost homeowner energy costs:

  • By using a fixed 15% fenestration area in the standard reference design, RE-146 will let homes with lower glazing trade off the efficiency of the rest of the home with a “free credit” created by the difference in efficiency between the
    fenestration and wall requirements.
  • Like RE-134, this proposal is not “energy neutral”; it will increase wasted energy in homes with less than 15% fenestration area.
  • And finally, there’s a good reason that the IECC’s performance path has never allowed lighting to be traded off for other efficiency features, and yet that’s exactly what RE-130 does. Just like equipment, federal law prohibits the
    IECC from setting lighting efficiency. If incorporated into the 2018 IECC, RE 130’s trade-off will increase new home energy use nationwide by as much 5.7%!

Will 2016 be wasted year for IECC code development? Because the inclusion of any one of these trade-off loopholes will waste so much more energy, it will produce a 2018 IECC that cannot be determined by DOE to “save more energy” than the 2015 IECC it updates.

If code officials believe that builders should get credit for installing equipment that exceeds federal minimum efficiency standards, they can adopt RE-179, the EECC “Flex
Points” proposal, which awards credit not only for heating, cooling, and water heating efficiency, but also other new innovative technologies–all without reducing the efficiency of the existing code. Unlike RE-134, RE-179 builds upon the solid energy conservation foundation of the 2015 IECC, rather than simply trading it away for artificial credit.

Bill Fay leads the broad-based based Energy Efficient Codes Coalition (EECC).
Photo Credit: littleny